BORIS Johnson yesterday vowed that kids will not have to wear face masks “a day more than is necessary” as pupils and teachers face uncertainty as schools go back today.
Heads are braced for a week of chaos with potentially thousands of pupils forced to stay at home due to pandemic- related staff shortages and positive test results.
They have been desperately trying to organise plans for students to meet last-minute Government guidance on testing and masks rushed through at the weekend.
It is feared the PM and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi were bounced into the measures by hardline teaching unions.
Both have previously spoken out against masks in classrooms and even Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam has questioned their effectiveness.
Mr Zahawi yesterday reiterated his pledge to keep schools open and confirmed exams will take place this summer.
But schools across the country could be forced to send pupils home if they or their teachers get a positive test as they return to classes, heads warned.
It means parents could get a text soon after drop-off telling them to come back and collect their child — stopping them from being able to go to work themselves.
Kids who have already missed out on months of school now face more weeks at home.
Tory backbenchers are livid with the restrictions on children.
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Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith said it was “as urgent as Covid itself” to keep schools open and pupils at their desks, adding: “We saw how much damage it did to the poorest in our society when they shut.”
He suggested that cutting isolation rules from seven days would take the pressure off schools.
Mr Duncan Smith also told The Sun: “I am also very sceptical over how masks will help when studies show that ventilation and testing is far more effective.
“I question if these measures are necessary to deal with Omicron. There is no evidence schools were the epicentre of outbreaks.”
But a bullish Mr Johnson said he would do his best to remove the new schools guidance as soon as possible, adding: “I don’t like the idea of having face masks in the classroom any more than anybody else does.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people heading back to work today face delays and cancellations on the creaking transport network.
Nearly a third of rail services have been axed at some stations in recent days, after as many as one in ten staff called in with illnesses including Covid.
Most parents are desperate to get children back to school, but there are fears it could cause a spike in infections as youngsters from different household mingle.
All secondary schools pupils will be tested today and then twice a week, while some classes will be merged to help deal with staff off sick.
Mr Zahawi said: “The priority is to keep schools open. The exams will go ahead and the merging of classes is really a mitigation against staff shortages.”
But Caroline Derbyshire, head at Saffron Walden County High School, in Essex, said staff shortages would “absolutely” make remote learning more likely.
She added: “If you hit a certain point with staff absences in a big school, you’ve suddenly got the inability to run a year group.
‘MUCH STRONGER POSITION’
“That’s when you start having either year groups or whole parts of schools having to go online.”
Geoff Barton, from the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “If the NHS is being affected, retail is being affected, if sporting fixtures are being affected, it’s hard to see why you would not — in schools and colleges — have the same issues around staff shortages.”
Yesterday, Mr Johnson all but ruled out forcing more restrictions on England, saying the nation would “continue with the path that we’re on”.
It came as Omicron cases in London appeared to be levelling off over the weekend.
The PM said that he will not impose any new measures because Omicron is “milder”.
He added: “I think that the UK is in a much, much stronger position than this time last year.”
But he admitted pressure on the NHS for the next few weeks will be “considerable”.
Speaking at a vaccine centre in Aylesbury, Bucks, he again urged people to get their booster jabs.
Talking about Omicron, he said: “It does seem, pretty conclusively, to be less severe than Delta or Alpha, and it is putting fewer people into ICU.
“Sadly, the people who are getting into ICU are the people who aren’t boosted — so get boosted.